My husband and I were injured in a bus accident. My husband will be out of work for a year and my part-time income cannot support our family. Our attorney says a structured settlement will give us regular payments, but he has not put one together. He would hire an expert. Should we trust him? What kind of questions should I ask? Should I shop around?

It is always better to have an attorney who is experienced rather than a novice for most purposes. You don’t want to pay your attorney for the time he will be learning what he has to know to help you. That is not to say, however, that your attorney can’t become educated in the process by engaging an expert. (Perhaps you can negotiate a lower fee with him because of his limited knowledge and simply rely on an expert to get a good portion of the information you need on this one issue.) You will have to ask the right questions to make sure you know all you need to know before settling on a structure. Without an experienced attorney, however, you are taking somewhat of a risk that you will not be getting all of the information you need to make an educated decision.

Most structured settlement experts are brokers, so do be careful. They know their "stuff," but they are trying to sell a structured settlement to the defendant’s insurance adjuster to get the claim settled. Comparison-shopping is not a bad idea under the circumstances, especially if your attorney cannot tell you if what is being presented is a good deal or not for you and your husband. Some brokers represent just one insurance company that underwrites annuities for structured settlements, and some represent a number of companies, just like some mortgage or insurance brokers, so ask questions about their representation. Sometimes insurance companies only use one broker, but you can still shop around for information. There are "plaintiff brokers" but you would have to pay for their service.

Make sure the broker comes up with several different scenarios and payment schedules so you can see what all of your options are. If you talk to more than one broker, compare the information you’ve been given and ask lots of questions if you do not understand what you are looking at. You should be able to compare the payment schedules and the bottom line—how much you are guaranteed to get and over what period of time. Ask questions about the investment:

  • Are they or are they not government insured in case of insolvency?
  • What happens if you should die before all of the funds are paid out?
  • Will the money go to your husband’s designated beneficiary(ies) or does the structure end upon his death?
  • Will the structure give your husband monthly payments for the rest of his life or is there a set time limit?

These are important questions and you will want to know the answers before you make a choice.